Definition of culture

How are we defining culture anyway? There are many options, but the evolution of ‘the way we do things around here’ (attributed to culture researcher Ben Schneider) to Siobhan McHale’s ‘the way things work around here’, moves from passive, to an active defence of the status quo. Kind of like ‘that’s how it works, don’t touch it, don’t question it and for goodness sake, don’t change it!’. Ben Schneider later defines culture as ‘the basic assumptions about the world and the values that guide life in organizations’. This gets at something pretty deep about culture which can become a problem if it gets buried too deep and is one of the biggest barriers to change. And another one to throw in from Steve Gruenert and Todd Whitaker: culture is shaped by ‘the worst behaviour the leader is willing to tolerate.’ Sit with that one, it’s powerful. Ask yourself what undesirable behaviour are you or your leaders tolerating right now?

Examples of great cultures

What is it that we see when we see a great culture? And why do we find the examples we find?  What does that say about us and the lens through which we see our own organisations and others? What does that mean about what we pay attention to, what matters to us, what we value? And how does that shape our own focus of attention and decision-making?


Culture is shaped by “the worst behaviour the leader is willing to tolerate.”

Steve Gruenert and Todd Whitaker


Where does culture come from and what influences it?

There are a number of influences that create and then continue to shape a culture. Here are a few…

  • Founders

    This is where a culture starts and typically will be shaped by those principles that the founders land on as important when they start out. Which usually makes them an outworking of the founders’ values.

  • Leaders

    This then carries over to how the leaders interpret this original base set of principles, assumptions and values and operationalise these into the way in which the organisation conducts itself in the world.

  • Hero/villain stories

    These are passed on as time goes by, so that examples of what is ok and not ok in the shape of individual employees, leaders, customers, whatever it may be, can be understood by new organisational members. Stories are powerful carriers of culture that are an outworking of founders’ and leaders’ influences.

  • Operating context

    In many cases, the operating context of an organisation can shape the culture, whether it’s a charity, staffed by volunteers, a financial institution with heavy external oversight, or a start up with venture capital funding. All of these influences…which are largely situational…will affect how a culture develops.

  • What gets measured/what is valued

    Ultimately, the phrase ‘what interests my boss, fascinates me’, drives culture. If managers measure it, focus on it, hold people accountable for delivering it, then it is valued by the organisation and will become significant in shaping the culture over time.

We also ask leaders the question ‘What are you currently prioritising that’s getting measured?’ ‘What are you not measuring that you should be?’ Leaders need to consider that they’re not always going to be fully aligned with all aspects of their culture because they may not have been responsible for creating it. But they are always a major influence in maintaining it. And particularly in changing it.

Why is culture so hard to change?

Culture quickly becomes ‘truth’, it gets buried, unarticulated, unquestioned and assumed. It’s just the way things work round here. So if it’s buried and hard to describe, what chance do we have of changing it?

Culture is driven by the powerful force of social identity theory and the need to feel safe as a group, outgroup derogation, ingroup favouritism and the dangers of groupthink – when groups get locked into beliefs about their own moral superiority because they don’t encourage enough diversity of thinking. In short, social psychological factors that make groups work make culture hard to change.

People don’t generally like change. So if your view of culture is that ‘It’s just how things work, the way we do things and we always have’, why would you want to move past the status quo, there’s no reason to, until there’s a reason to. Most people will seek the path of least resistance and that is not going to be changing a culture. Because that is hard work.

How can you change a culture?

Remember the idiom ‘Culture eats strategy for lunch’… you could have the best strategy in the world, but unless your culture is aligned with it, your people won’t do what you need to deliver the strategy. If culture is the ‘way things work around here’, then as we’ve heard, it gives people a sense of safety and security that they know how to behave, how to do their jobs and how to get things done. But it can get seriously get in the way of performance if it’s not pointing towards delivering your strategy. So how do you change it when change is needed?

  1. 1

    Work out what needs to change. What things currently work that will need to be switched out or dialled up to create a new set of ways of working, for you to deliver your strategy. There are various ways to do this and tools which can help you. Working through a framework of say ‘competing values’ or an up-to-date model of culture which describes different elements of what a culture can be, e.g. centralised or decentralised decision making, a focus on purpose or on profits, a long term or short term focus. There’s no judgement implied here, just a requirement to focus on the best interests of the organisation if it’s to deliver on its strategy.

  2. 2

    You don’t change a culture in the 21stcentury without including the people who work in it. There are two important ways of doing this.

      1. Get a diversity of thought/perspectives/experience on what might need to change from across the organisation.
      2. Involve people in the change. Build the route map for change together so that people feel they are a part of it and not just having change landed on them. Co-creation of a new fit-for-purpose culture is becoming the default method for change with millennials and Gen Zers who expect to be consulted and have their views included in any major plan for the future.
  3. 3

    Shift mindsets. People need something simple to hold on to that they will recognise as being an improvement on how things are today, which will motivate them away from the old and towards the new. This can create an intrinsic dense of dissatisfaction with the status quo which is essential to create an impetus for change.

  4. 4

    Don’t forget head, heart and hands – communicate the business case, communicate the why and provide a plan for both the practical skills and the deadlines and milestones people will need to meet in order to make the change.

  5. 5

    Reinforce the changes throughout your people process ‘moments of truth’ – recruitment, appraisal, reward, promotion. If your culture is the worst behaviour that leaders will tolerate, make sure that you don’t keep tolerating the intolerable. And that means helping people who don’t want to come on the journey to move on.

Of course there’s more to it than this. But these are the principles.